Monday, September 26, 2016

Delight – Earth’s crammed with heaven

The Bible affirms that creation is good (see Genesis 1:31) and it is full of God’s glory (see Isaiah 6:1-3) and that God rejoices and delights in it (see Proverbs 8:30-31)

Do we delight in creation? Do we see God's delight in it? Or are we too busy, too distracted? How might we better attend to that delight?

“All that is sweet, delightful, and amiable in this world, in the serenity of the air, the fineness of seasons, the joy of light, the beauty of colors, the fragrancy of smells. The splendor of precious stones, is nothing else but heaven breaking through the veil of this world, manifesting itself in such a degree and darting forth in such variety so much of its own nature.”
– William Law (1686-1761)

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;       
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,       
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
– R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Mercy – Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy


But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Jesus (Luke 6:35-36)

Jesus challenges his followers to be as merciful as God. That means mercy toward everyone. But, Jesus, following the Old Testament, showed particular mercy toward the poor. He said that when we care for those in need, we care for him. (Matthew 25:31-46)

The early Church took seriously this responsibility to take care of the poor. In fact, many understood care for the poor as an extension of its worship, or liturgy.

Liturgy (leitourgia) originally referred to work on behalf of the public, e.g., the wealthy would pay for public works and public religious festivals. In the New Testament, Christ is referred to as performing a leitourgia: “Christ has obtained a ministry [the Greek word is leitourgia – liturgy] which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant it mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Christ’s life of obedience, death on the cross, and resurrection is the Christian liturgy. It is public work done for the benefit of the people. The early church adopted the word to refer to its worship understood as participating in the one liturgy of Jesus.

But that worship was not understood as only what happened at church on Sunday morning. In her book, The Hungry are Dying, Bishops and Beggars in Roman Cappadocia, Susan R. Holman shows that in the early church, "Almsgiving is regarded early as a redemptive leitourgia." p. 54.

Holman refers to Basil the Great who assures his audience that almsgiving is

the one action that would open to you the doors of heaven . . . . Do you realize that in giving your gold, your money, your fields, that is to say rocks and earth, you acquire life eternal? . . . . I know many who fast, pray, mourn and practice admirably the gratuitous forms of piety, but they do not give an obol to the outcasts. What good do the other virtues do them? They will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. p.108

Basil also asserted that, "as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, so we ourselves if we remember the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating." p. 83

Here are three quotes from John Chrysostom's Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, which can be found in On Wealth and Poverty:

[The Lord] settled the rich man opposite Lazarus in order that he might see the good of which he had deprived himself. "I sent", he says, "the poor man Lazarus to your gate to teach you virtue and to receive your love; you ignored this benefit and declined to use his assistance toward your salvation. Hereafter you shall use him to bring yourself a greater punishment and retribution." p. 48

Referring to a different parable (Luke 12:15-21) with a similar point, Chrysostom said,

When his [the rich man's] harvest was abundant, he said to himself, 'What shall I do? I shall pull down my barns and build larger ones.' There is nothing more wretched than such an attitude. In truth he took down his barns; for the safe barns are not walls, but the stomachs of the poor. p. 34

Like a lot of the early church preachers and theologians, Chrysostom asserted that our wealth is not our own:

Remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth for the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their way of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ. p. 55

And here are some related quotes from the early church for which I unfortunately do not have citations. Together with the above, they reveal how seriously and how pervasively the early Church took the responsibility to care for the poor:

Share everything with your brother. Do not say, “It is private property.” If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last. 
– The Didache (1st century)
                       
Instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions. – Irenaeus (130-200)

I know that God has given us the use of goods, but only as far as is necessary; and he has determined that the use be common. It is absurd and disgraceful for one to live magnificently and luxuriously when so many are hungry. 
– Clement of Alexandria (150-215)

The property of the wealthy holds them in chains . . . which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money but its slaves. 
– Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)
           
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help. 
– Basil of Caesarea (330-370)

How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping? 
– Basil of Caesarea (330-370)

You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. 
– Ambrose of Milan, 340-397

The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally. 
– John Chrysostom (347-407)

Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs. 
– John Chrysostom (347-407)

"Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing. . . The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer the liturgy at any hour." – John Chrysostom (347-407)

When you are weary of praying and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him. 
– John Chrysostom (347-407)

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. 
– Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

The price of the kingdom is the food you give to the poor who need it.
– Leo the Great (400-461)

Some think the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away. – Gregory the Great (540-604)


Monday, September 19, 2016

Delight – The world is a mirror of infinite beauty

God delights in his creation. Delighting in that creation with gratitude is a means of delighting in God and thus an important aspect of worshiping God.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), understood that better than most. He was an English poet, priest, theologian, and religious writer. His most famous work is a collection of reflections, Centuries of Meditations (online here). Among many other things Traherne offers advice on how to enjoy the world aright. Below are some of his reflections from the "First Century" (the first 100 reflections). The language is archaic, but the ideas are timeless:

14
When things are ours in their proper places, nothing is needful but prizing to enjoy them. God therefore hath made it infinitely easy to enjoy, by making everything ours, and usable so easily to prize them. Everything is ours that serves us in its place. The Sun serves us as much as is possible, and more than we could imagine. The Clouds and Stars minister unto us, the World surrounds us with beauty, the Air refresheth us, the Sea revives the earth and us. The Earth itself is better than gold because it produceth fruits and flowers. And therefore in the beginning, was it made manifest to be mine, because Adam alone was made to enjoy it. By making one, and not a multitude, God evidently shewed one alone to be the end of the World and every one its enjoyer. For every one may enjoy it as much as he.

27
You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God: And prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your Soul, far more than the visible beauty on their surface, or the material services they can do your body. Wine by its moisture quencheth my thirst, whether I consider it or no: but to see it flowing from His love who gave it unto man, quencheth the thirst even of the Holy Angels. To consider it, is to drink it spiritually. To rejoice in its diffusion is to be of a public mind. And to take pleasure in all the benefits it doth to all is Heavenly, for so they do in Heaven. To do so, is to be divine and good, and to imitate our Infinite and Eternal Father.

28
Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels. The bride of a monarch, in her husband’s chamber, hath too such causes of delight as you.

29
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

30
Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world. Till you more feel it than your private estate, and are more present in the hemisphere, considering the glories and the beauties there, than in your own house: Till you remember how lately you were made, and how wonderful it was when you came into it: and more rejoice in the palace of your glory, than if it had been made but to-day morning.

31
Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright; till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. There is so much blindness and ingratitude and damned folly in it. The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven. When Jacob waked out of his dream, he said “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 1

Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 2


More Mercy and Delight

Friday, September 16, 2016

Mercy – Love your enemies

Jesus said that his followers were to be as unfailingly merciful as God is. But, all that talk of mercy is no mere sentimentality. Fundamental to that mercy is one of the hardest, most distinctive, and most radical demands Jesus makes of his followers: that they love and pray for their enemies.

The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother [or sister], and requite hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus [see Romans 5:10], it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus 

What might that look like? These quotes from C. S. Lewis are a good place to start:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.” 

That is a challenge when thinking of real enemies, but, closer to home, it seems particularly pertinent in this election season as we engage those with whom we disagree politically..

And here is a letter from Lewis to a friend, Dom Bede Griffiths, 16 Apr 1940, on praying for your enemies:

The practical problem about charity (in one’s prayer) is very hard work, isn’t it? When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real? The two things that help me are (a) A continual grasp of the idea that one is only joining one’s feeble little voice to the perpetual intercession of Christ who died for these very men. (b) A recollection, as firm as I can make it, of all one’s own cruelty; which might have blossomed under different conditions into something terrible. You and I are not at bottom so different from these ghastly creatures.
Do we pray for our enemies and opponents? And not just that they would change and be more agreeable toward us? Do we pray that they might know some taste of God’s mercy and delight? Do we pray that our own hearts might be softened toward them? Our own minds more willing to understand them? Do we seek to give them the benefit of the doubt? If we are to carry our enemies and opponents in our hearts and on our tongues to the Throne of God’s mercy, does it make any difference after those prayers in the way we think or talk or tweet or post on Facebook about them? The answers to those question are critical to whether we are committed to being faithful to Jesus or are content to live in sin.

Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 1

Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 2


More Mercy and Delight

Monday, September 12, 2016

Delight – Nature = God thinking out loud

Charles Grafton (1830-1912), 2nd Bishop of Fond du Lac:

Nature is only God thinking out loud. He speaks in the truthful precision of mathematics, as, according to the inverse square of their distances, the stellar bodies courtesy and bow to one another. He, Who is not only Beautiful but Beauty Itself, can but join in marriage together the useful and the beautiful. The same laws which make for health and life paint the sky in its sunset colors and clothe the bending grain in ripples of light. – The Ritual of the Church

I remember walking in the woods one day and, on a log which stood in the midst of an opening, listening to a little insect as it rubbed its wings together and so made one plaintive note; whether it was an acted prayer or song of praise could not be discerned. The opening in the woods, with the blue sky and clouds above it, was to that little creature its universe. How like that insect was I. How circumscribed my vision and knowledge, how insignificant my being. I was but a little speck upon this little speck of a planet. I was only like a mote glittering in the sunbeam, along with billions of others. But the great Father knew me and I knew Him. Christ had promised that He and the Father would come and make His abode in us, and He had done so in little me. His presence filled my little being with an everlasting song of rejoicing. I, like the little insect, could utter one note of praise: Glory be to Thee, O God! Dearest, I love Thee, let me love Thee more!



Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 2


More Mercy and Delight

Friday, September 9, 2016

Mercy – Heroic Sanctity of Forgiveness

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Jesus (Matthew 6:14-15)

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” – Jesus (Matthew 18:21-22)

In the last post about mercy, we saw that God's mercy is comprehensive and that being a follower of Jesus means extending that mercy to all others. Among other things, that means a call to a radical discipline of forgiveness. (In addition to the above, see Matthew 18:33-35, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37-38, Colossians 3:12-13)

Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a member of the Inklings, the literary discussion group that included J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S Lewis. He is a favorite of mine. He was an editor and authored several strange, but wonderful “supernatural thrillers”. He was also a lay theologian – mostly self-taught, idiosyncratic, but orthodox. He wrote several theological books and essays. His writing style is not always easy to follow, but what he has to say is almost always wise, evocative, and worth the trouble.

The following is from Williams’ book, The Forgiveness of Sins, which he dedicated to the Inklings. It was originally part of a series of books that included The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis. It was published in 1942, in the thick of World War II. The point he makes is no less challenging or pertinent for Christians today:


Forgiveness is not normally a thrilling or an exciting thing. The metaphor which our Lord used has a particular aptness--it is the taking up, the carrying, the Cross, not the being crucified: it is the intolerable weight of the duty, and not its agony, which defeats us--'the weight of glory'.  p. 192-193

. . . .

Forgiveness of all injuries is demanded of the Christian because of the nature of our Lord, and it is demanded entirely. The phrase ‘things that cannot be forgiven’ is therefore to him intellectually meaningless. But it may in fact mean a good deal all the same. It is true that few of us are, fortunately, in a position to understand that meaning; no injuries of which the forgiveness seem unbelievable have ever been done to us. But probably there are at the present moment more persons alive in Europe than for many generations to whom such injuries have been done. . . . The massacres, the tortures, and the slavery, which have appeared in Europe of late that have impressed themselves upon us. In the ruined homes of Rotterdam–or indeed of England–among the oppressed thousands of Poland, there are those to whom the phrase ‘things that cannot be forgiven’ has fearful meaning. Must they nevertheless be forgiven? They must. Must vengeance, must even resentment, be put off? It must. There is certainly a distinction between the desire for private vengeance and the execution of public justice. But there is no excuse for concealing private vengeance under the disguise of public justice. . . .The injury done to many in this kind of war is greater than the injury done to one in private, but the result, from a Christian point of view, cannot be other. That must be, everywhere and always, the renewal of love. But in such states as we are now considering, that renewal means little less than heroic sanctity. It is upon such heroic sanctities that the Church depends–depends in the sense that they are the rule, its energy, and its great examples. . .

Heroic sanctity is required perhaps to forgive, but not to forgive is ordinary sin. There is no alternative; the greatness of the injury cannot supply that. It becomes–an excuse? No, a temptation: the greater the injury, the greater the temptation; the more excusable the sin, the no less sin. – p. 165-167

. . . .

Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive and unprepared to be forgiven. Instruction is as badly needed in this as in many other less vital things; that holy light which we call humility has an exact power of illumination all its own. – p. 193

How often do I make excuses for my hardness of heart and weakness of will? How often to I give in to the temptation not to forgive? How often do I refuse to acknowledge that I am the one in need of forgiveness? How often does my mercy fall far short of the mercy of God?

Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 1

Becoming a People of God's Mercy and Delight, Part 2


More Mercy and Delight

Monday, September 5, 2016

Delight – people walking about shining like the sun


We have seen that the Christian understanding is that there is a Triune dance of delight at the heart of things. We have seen how the experience of that delight change us (here and here). Last week we saw that sinking our hearts into the heart of God can enable us to see the whole outside world also seemed to be full of beauty and delight.

On the 18th of March in 1958, Thomas Merton had this epiphany:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.’ It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried to become a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. They are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers! Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

Merton himself admits that this is not something we can expect to normally see. It can only be “believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.” Whether or not we receive that peculiar gift, living in the way of Jesus means engaging others as though we believed they were “shining like the sun” as beings created in the image of God and members of a race of which God Himself gloried to become a member. Might we remember that in Christ, there are no strangers? Might we practice looking for the secret beauty in one another’s heart?